The Barefoot Doctor is an urban guru. Not a monk, living up the Himalayas and meditating all day, in saffron robes. He’s not a messiah for the new-age meditating, juice fasting, organic veggie-munching hippy. He’s actually called Steve, he comes from London’s East End, he’s hip and fast talking and he’s a guru for the internet surfer, the e-mailer, the laptop-carrying, mobile-phoning “Sex and the City” watching spiritual seeker. The kind of guy (or chick) who can slot in an hour’s power yoga on the way to a breakfast meeting but who is discerning enough to know his mantra from his tantra. Hippy gurus had smelly ashrams in India with no showers and you heard about them by word of mouth. Barefoot has the kind of website that needs extra software just to access it and once you find it, you can listen to his radio station while you check out the state of the art groovy graphics.
It started out as a personal spiritual quest. He took up martial arts at the age of eleven, then graduated to yoga, and found himself hanging out with RD Laing in the early seventies. From there, he moved to the States, to study Native American medicine. That interest lead to a study of Taoist medicine and continues to evolve. He teaches Tai Chi, occasionally and can tell you where your meridians are and which ones to press, for every complaint under the sun.
A lifelong interest in music, inherited from his father, -a jazz drummer with Ronnie Scott, and cousin of Stan Getz- turned into a band, while he was a teenager and he now tours and performs a healing rap, set to music. The latest CD, called ‘Om Baby” is available from the website., Barefoot attracts a dedicated following of clubbers but he’s a multi-media missionary and he’s only just warming up. Aside from writing his weekly column for ‘The Observer” (which is also published in this newspaper,) he has a regular television show, and also does radio. There’s a collection of books, including the ‘Handbook for the Urban Warrior” and his own range of perfumes and bath products. The new website is getting thirty thousand hits a day and the new book ‘Twisted Fables for Twisted Minds’ has just been published.
We meet at the Merrion hotel, where he’s en route to the Dunphy Show. I’m en route to Bono and Gavin Friday’s launch at the City Hall. Barefoot isn’t quite in Bono’s league, as celebrities go, but who knows? Maybe he’s heading that way. He already numbers Madonna, Naomi Campbell and Jade Jagger among his clients.
Today, we are being filmed by a man called Mike, as we conduct our interview, as part of a documentary about Barefoot’s life. What’s it like being a guru? I ask him bluntly, as the camera rolls.
“I’m not a guru,” he replies, decidedly .
“Your publicist told me you are!’ I insist.
“If I start thinking of myself as anything more than a student,’ he says, “I get loony in the head. What saves me and keeps me sane is that I am here to serve, it’s as simple as that. By sharing information in a way that is easy to understand. I’ve studied this Eastern system for over thirty years and I frame it in an appropriate way for people who like me live in cities and hang out, drinking and smoking and fucking and shopping. I’ve got the same issues about status and the same hang-ups and complexes as everyone else. I’ve just had the time to integrate all the Taoist stuff with all the human stuff. And I’m passing that on in as many ways as I can, and through as many media as I can find. So I’m not really a guru. It is fun being famous though!”
He wouldn’t recommend taking fame seriously.
“Anything that you get hooked on, that is an illusion, will only hurt you.”
He claims not to have an image, either. And it’s true, he doesn’t look the part, he’s too normal. Understated well-designed, but conservative casual clothes, a gentle demeanour and a quiet speaking voice, with a London accent.
“Occasionally, people stop and talk to me, but generally it’s to ask me a question about their life. It’s touching that someone I don’t know feels safe enough to share their problems with me. Sometimes I do get into an ego trip, but it makes me feel uncomfortable when I do it. It’s like eating too much sugar!”
Fame, he insists, is just a game. What’s important is putting out positive energy, because when you put it out, it comes back.
“I do Tai Chi and other martial arts every morning for about three hours and that definitely cleanses your energy and creates a forcefield around you, which spins any negative energy off,” he tells me.
Is your life perfect? I ask.
“What a question! In that I have total acceptance of the imperfection of life, yes. For every bit of pleasure, there is pain. Things are going to go wrong, I am going to die. And you can’t imagine all the things that go wrong every day! It is perfect, but only in the way that I respond to it. I am learning to develop a sense of humour about it.”
Every morning, the first thing he does is write a piece for posting on the website, he says.
That’s the very first thing you do? I say, enthralled.
‘Well, I pee first.”
What about breakfast?
“I don’t eat breakfast until much later. Not until lunch time. And I don’t eat lunch.”
Isn’t breakfast the most important meal of the day?
“Yes, but I can’t do exercise after I’ve eaten, so I sit and write my piece instead. It only takes ten minutes.”
Today’s posting asks that we might all be liberated from delusion, self pity, anxiety, depression, stress and negativity. Every day, hundreds of people email him, with their own personal problems. He used to answer the emails himself, but now has an assistant to help. After dealing with all that, and exercising, he’s ready for a bowl of Alpen, he says.
That’s not even organic! I am horrified.
“No, but it’s sweet. And then I usually do TV or radio and lots of meetings. For all the different areas of the empire. And I have a manager, so I have conversations with her all day.”
So it is just like being a pop-star?
“Yeah, except it’s not just music. I have the added responsibility of having to be wise and kind and give off good energy. Pop-stars can do what they want!”
At the moment, there’s no Mrs Barefoot. Although there have been three children, by previous partners. The right lady hasn’t appeared, he says and for the time being he’s happy that way. Is it a hassle, maintaining the empire? I ask. Isn’t he tempted to just meditate all day?
“Oh yes. But I have things I want to accomplish, before I retire. There’s the Travelling Medicine Show, which is maybe the most important of all the things I want to do. It’s a live concert with a flying trapeze circus troupe of musicians. I’m the narrator and they are playing my tunes.”
As well as that, there’s the new book to promote.
“You can’t teach by just telling people, they respond so much better when you can make up parables. So I started writing this book of stories and it came out really mad. But it just flowed, I never knew what was coming next.”
The result is billed as ‘urban gritty fables in the tradition of Paulo Coelho.’ The strap-line promises that the book ‘Will either heal you or make you go insane” I am not so sure, having read it. The characters are just a little too comic-book to be interesting and the ‘lessons’ are spoon-fed, just in case they didn’t sink in properly from the stories. Paulo Coelho it’s not, but you can’t blame the guy for trying and it’s a light- hearted read.
Our photographer arrives and positions Barefoot on the bed, with the cameraman’s feet framing his face. It’s an extremely awkward position to be in, even if the cameraman insists that he doesn’t have smelly feet. Barefoot is asked to make silly faces, which he does, somewhat hesitantly, but he warms to it, like a trouper. The image, like the books and the website will be quirky, modern and irreverent. All part of the package. When it’s all over, he says, he would like to be a children’s Tai Chi teacher and live very quietly. That’s after he’s made sure his mum is taken care of.
“Meanwhile, I’m just a humble little barefoot doctor, doing my thing,’ he says.
With an empire to run, I remind him.
‘An empirelet,” he smiles.
‘Twisted Fables for Twisted Minds,” is published by Thorsons 17.40 euros.